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Graphic Novel Review: Vinland Saga - Book One

Posted by Jeff the Fridge from Cardiff - Published on 04/12/2014 at 15:46
0 comments » - Tagged as Art, Creative Writing

  • Vinland Saga COver

Vinland Saga

Makoto Yukimura

RRP £14.99

Vikings are cool.

They have the cool dragonships and they come from Iceland and they do all the cool pirate things but in old timey England.

Aside from the Amazon show that I haven't watched, and that one Robbie The Reindeer special, I can't think of many places where Vikings have infiltrated the media at this point in time.

Given the amount of dark fantasy stories strewn all around the place, with Game Of Thrones and the likes, its surprising that there hasn't been more done with Vikings, seeing as they fit perfectly into that kind of setting.

And that's where Vinland Saga comes in.

First released in 2005, Vinland Saga is an ongoing manga series by the author of the cult sci-fi modern classic Planetes, Makoto Yukimura, and is exactly the kind of Viking story I wanted for this genre.

The story follows Thorfinn, a young Viking who has joined the pirate crew of Vikings that killed his father, seeking vengeance against the bands leader, the enigmatic Askeladd. Straight off the bat and I'm already incredibly attracted to this story premise. Though it doesn't sound like anything hugely out of the ordinary, I have been searching quite a while for a good seinen (a manga for teenage to adult males) after getting up to date with Berserk, and the Viking setting is one that is hugely attractive to me, as I do like non-conventional historical settings.

The character of Thorfinn himself isn't terribly interesting, however. I wouldn't go as far to call him one-dimensional, but I feel like I've read characters with the exact same archetype over and over and over. The same can be said for Thors, Throfinn's father, and Askeladd, as any Game Of Thrones fans will quickly draw parallels with these characters to people like Ned Stark and Jaime Lannister respectively.

However, the slightly lighter tone and familiar characters make this piece very engaging. Even though I could easily tell what would happen in the next scene purely from experience, I still wanted to see these events play out, as the characters are written well enough so that I wanted to see them succeed, as well as fail in some cases.

Even though I knew from the outset that Thors death was inevitable, as the first two chapters of the story take place several years after Thorfinn had been a part of Askeladd's crew before showing us how Thors met his fate, I still felt a huge emotional connection with the character, with his rigid sense of honour and duty, so much so that I still felt a huge emotional pang with the frame of his death. It's masterful that Yukimura made me feel such an attachment to this character, despite spending such a short time with him.

The fantastic characters and story are also backed up by some astounding art. The standing frames with little action cram in a remarkable amount of detail, with each characters emotions exaggerated just enough for them to be easily recognisable, whilst never falling into the realm of goofiness. Any scenes where the boats are shown sailing in frame are truly majestic, fully encapsulating how it must have felt to be on one of those small ships chopping over the waves.

Each of the characters are recognisably unique, especially impressive given the black and white nature of manga, with Thors and Askeladd once again being the standouts. However Thorfinn still looks fairly generic, with foppish hair and a bland expression, though I feel I could grow on this character if I spent more time with him. But I've left the best until last. The art in the sparse combat scenes is truly amazing.

The opening two chapters featuring Askeladd and his crew storming a keep whilst Thorfinn slices and dices his way through hapless troops is a great taster of the action this series can offer, especially with the initial duel between Thorfinn and Askeladd, though I did feel a lack of real interest in the outcome of that fight, as I didn't know either of the characters well enough to care who won.

For the combat scenes, Thorfinn seems like a polar opposite to Gutts, the main character of Berserk, as Thorfinn's style is all about the speed and dexterity of his two short swords, leading to some fantastic energy in some of his combat frames, whereas Gutts is content to destroy everything on a page with the mighty, and admittedly kind of silly, hunk of metal known as Dragonslayer. The combat is meaty and visceral, and whilst not overly gory as some action comics tend to make the mistake of being, but definitely not for the light hearted, with heads a-flying and blood a-spurting.

The only minor gripe I have with art is the French general from the start of the book. Though weird and creepy looking, he doesn't quite fit in with the realistic tone of the rest of the book, and had me wondering if the series had some kind of mystical monster element, and nothing else showed a similar theme, at least not as far as I have read so far.

Vinland Saga Book One is a fantastic read from start to finish. The characters, despite being not hugely original, but also not too generic, and story are gripping and tense, the setting is beautifully drawn, Yukimura really capturing the isolation of the snowy tundra of Iceland and the crashing waves of the oceans, as well as being a fairly original setting for the genre. If you loved the style of How To Train Your Dragon, and want a more serious, dark fantasy style story, Vinland Saga is a must read. 

The book is also fantastic to hold, being a whopping great tome of a hardback, and with nearly four hundred and fifty pages of astounding art and an engrossing story line, Vinland Saga had me captivated from start to finish, and I think its well worth everyone's time.

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